Iron & Earth: Oil Sands Workers Ready For Renewable Energy Shift


During his six-year tenure working in Alberta’s oil sands, Lliam Hildebrand found that one topic in particular – renewable energy, of all things – always made its way into conversation.

Unemployment in the oil sector was growing, and many environmentally conscious tradespeople struggled to justify their working in a carbon-intensive industry that contributes to climate change and its effects.

Realizing that his co-workers shared the same concerns, Hildebrand conceived Iron & Earth, a national initiative to retrain tradespeople working in the fossil fuel industry to transition into the renewables sector.

“The formation of Iron & Earth came about over many lunchroom conversations in the oil sands,” Hildebrand recounts. “My co-workers and I wanted to see renewable energy technologies incorporated more significantly into our work scope, so we decided to do something about it.”

According to Hildebrand, the organization directly benefits oil sands workers by connecting them with information, training opportunities and stakeholders in the renewable energy sector.

“We also provide a platform for workers to advocate for renewable energy jobs,” he adds.

In addition to expanding tradespeople’s current scope of work, the initiative also aims to retrain those who were laid off following the global drop in oil prices, which, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, led to the loss of more than 100,000 jobs overall in 2015.

Currently, Iron & Earth boasts more than 450 members from various trades, including boilermakers, like Hildebrand; electricians; ironworkers; pipe fitters; laborers; and more.

Although the initiative’s first focus was directed to the solar industry – aiming to retrain 1,000 out-of-work oil sands workers to install solar panels in Alberta – its members see potential for work in other areas, including wind power.

“Solar PV is isolated to electricians for training, but technologies like wind, biofuels, biomass and geothermal utilize a broader range of industrial trades utilized in the oil sands,” says Hildebrand.

“This work will help the wind industry by putting a face to the workers benefiting from the industry and building broader support for renewable energy development,” he says. “And, the province of Alberta will benefit by having a renewable energy workforce ready to meet the demands of an emerging industry.”

This past November, Iron & Earth publicly introduced its plan to put words into action. Titled the Workers’ Climate Plan, the report “describes how Canada can become a leader in renewable energy, and a net exporter of renewable energy products, services and technology, by harnessing the industrial trade skills of current energy sector workers.”

Notably, many of these workers in the building trades either already have the basic skills necessary for renewables work or they have transferable skills that would enable a smooth transition.

According to the plan, “The compatibility or near compatibility of existing skills with renewables is extensive: Electricians are needed to develop and install solar panels, welders are needed to build wind turbines, drillers and drilling engineers are needed to locate and maintain geothermal wells, and so on.”

The Workers’ Climate Plan includes analysis of more than 1,000 survey responses detailing tradespeople’s experiences working in the energy sector, opinions on the shift to renewables, and concerns about the economy and climate change.

Citing comments from several trade technicians, the report highlights the general consensus that workers would welcome a shift to clean, alternative energy – both on a personal and professional level.

“I care deeply about the environment and feel that the future needs to be renewable energy. I also fundamentally believe in a just transition for oil sands workers,” comments one trade worker.

“Canada needs to pivot away from all electricity generation with a high-carbon footprint to green electricity. As an electrician, I am prepared to be trained and work within the clean energy sector,” says Daniel Lee, construction electrician.

Looking at the numbers, the survey found that 63% of respondents said they could transition to renewables projects “directly with some training,” and 16% said they could transition without any additional training at all.

What’s more, 59% of energy sector workers reported they were even willing to take a pay cut to transition to renewable energy.

To make this a reality, Iron & Earth is calling on the government to provide funding for the necessary training programs and to promote job opportunities that support a low-carbon economy.

“We have had a lot of positive meetings with the government of Alberta and the government of Canada, and we are working to secure grants for preliminary demonstration projects and training programs,” Hildebrand says. “Many unions in Canada are very supportive of renewable energy, and we are hopeful that Canada’s building trades will develop a strong position in favor of these emerging technologies.”

All that being said, the oil sands have been a key industry for the Canadian economy for years, and Iron & Earth members realize that many will rely on these jobs in the future.

As such, the initiative says its goal is not to shut down the oil sands but to “see they are managed more sustainably, while developing our renewable energy resources more ambitiously.”

In an effort to extend into the wind industry, Iron & Earth signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with wind energy company Beothuk Energy Inc. (BEI) in July 2016 to facilitate the apprenticeships and retraining necessary for oil and gas workers to transition into the offshore wind sector.

According to a company release, BEI proposed six offshore wind farms in Atlantic Canada with a combined 4,000+ MW of installed capacity. Under the MOU, the company plans to create approximately 10 jobs for each megawatt produced.

The group aims to keep growing in numbers and across provinces, having already expanded outside of Alberta to include a Newfoundland chapter. With a strong wind energy potential – one of the strongest in any jurisdiction in North America – Newfoundland and Laborador is particularly well-suited to benefit from this shift away from fossil fuels and to the renewables market.

Hildebrand is optimistic about the future of Iron & Earth, noting that the group’s trade skills can help the world meet climate targets and approach net-zero by 2050.

Photo courtesy of Bryan Passifiume/CanWEA.

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